the sharpest tool


“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a sharp pencil.”

(shamelessly modified Chinese proverb)


Tucked into a corner classroom, far away from the hum of row-upon-row of high school exam-takers in the large auditorium, two dozen other students, with extra time and separate space testing accommodations, are hunched over math exams, graph paper,  unsolved x’s and y’s, calculators, word problems and flecks of eraser residue.

The discomfort in the room is palpable. Compulsive glances at the clock, nail-biting, deep sighs and the occasional frustrated forehead dropping down onto a desk in a moment of utter math despair. Ugh. Excuse me for a moment as I have a personal, quasi-traumatic math exam flashback.




Okay, I’m back.

As a proctor for accommodated exams for intelligent students who struggle to show what they know, my intention is to anchor the room with a calm presence so I arrive early, greet them, then stroll around the room during the exam, breathing deeply, smiling at them if they glance up at me and trying to relay with my eyes that I’m not judging them or their work since the equations all looks like Greek to me.  βοηθήστε με!

Mostly I just watch them. Notice their frequent highs and lows. I notice when their anxiety becomes momentarily debilitating over a tricky question or sheer exhaustion and that’s when I’ll quietly intervene with an encouraging word or a suggestion to take a few deep breaths or a short break.

Besides the stress levels radiating from their furrowed brows, I notice an overall level of uneasy unpreparedness in the students. I’m not judging them on how many hours they studied, if they created effective study sheets or whether or not they listened attentively during the instruction portion of class time. What I see are students unconsciously, reactively sabotaging their genuine efforts with a lack of appropriate tools for the task at hand.  Is there a correlation between how the students prepared for an exam with how they prepare for each day, part-time jobs, their relationships or their future?

Concrete Tools

Incredibly, some students enter the exam room with only dull-tipped stubs of once-glorious pencils or with no pencils at all. For a math exam!  Did they not know they would need a pencil for a math exam? Was it due to lack of clear instruction from teachers and parents over the years about how come prepared for a math exam? Doubtful. At some point, during the long years of math classes, tests and previous exams, the concept of coming equipped with multiple decently sharp pencils must have bypassed their general knowledge file and gone missing in a cloud of random, useless facts. Yet, still many come empty-handed and ill-equipped to reluctantly face the greatest challenge of their current day; a high school math exam.

If this is how they arrive, I wonder if they even ate breakfast before the exam, stayed well-hydrated while studying, studied for reasonable periods broken up by breaks and if they got a decent night’s sleep. Often, it is the students who arrive in the nick of time, out of breath and pencil-less to the exam have also forgotten which room they’re writing in, keep most of their notes in the bottom of their back-pack or locker and have years of report card comments like “bright student who needs to work harder at handing in all assignments. And on time”.   Years of short quips chronicling the life of the unprepared.

Abstract Tools

Outside the exam room just before the doors open, the following examples of students’ sabotaging self-talk were heard: “I have to do really well on this exam or I’ll be so angry with myself.  Not only that but my parents will kill me”. Or the other side of the coin: “Who cares? What’s the point, I’m going to fail anyway. I just can’t do math. I don’t even care”.

This barrage of unconscious but vicious, limiting language is an act of verbal self-harm and is likely a daily language patterns that is not just pulled out for exams only. Simple but deflating words paving the path to inevitable suffering. For even if they pass or ace the exam, the language of never being “good enough” is erosive and about as ineffective as their stubby, dull pencils. But ultimately much more harmful.

So what?

I’ve encountered a disturbing attitude from teachers and parents encapsulated in “Suck it up! I made it through high school okay so you should too” or the alternative where teachers and parents overlook the lack of preparedness because the student has reached a certain age when the adults decide that they will need to learn the hard way. Through soul-crushing failure?  Really?  How will the parched grain of their self-acceptance be watered with a concrete, line-in-the-sand, punitive attitude from the adults in their life?  Without parents and teachers seizing teachable moments, how will they ever learn?

Choosing not to engage students in the abundance of teachable moments is doing them a monumental disservice. New brain research is showing new levels of underdevelopment of the adolescent brain until their early 20’s so when a teenager appears lazy, crazy and hazy, they might not actually be. There is no magic age when a student will automatically put all the pieces together and have it all figured out. There are no concrete developmental milestones for well-honed executive functioning skills and the proof of this is the sheer number of adults who still struggle with daily organization, self-management, initiating, performing and completing a task, efficiently and effectively.

Each nano-second in the life of a frustratingly unprepared adolescent is an opportunity to teach, or re-teach a life skill for the first or millionth time.  As understandably tired parents and teachers, it is still our job.  The most important job we will ever have.

No coddling or rescuing is necessary. Simple emotion-free questions about how prepared or unprepared they feel before an exam or test. Asking them what tools, concrete or abstract, would increase their confidence, decrease their stress and remove the limits to their success. Asking them to recall a time when they felt prepared and how it impacted the result.  Plant seeds of critical thinking, asking the big questions, noticing the long term impact of their action or inaction.  Oh, and modelling increasingly developed executive functioning skills is the sail that’ll make that boat float most consistently!

If a student’s level of unpreparedness begins to interfere with daily functioning then it is time to dig deeper into the available support systems able to help maximize the teachable moments.  Explore their unique learning profile, consider a professional therapist to work on strengthening weary stress coping strategies, engage a subject-specific tutor and/or student success coach for on-going academic and learning strategy and study skills development.

Help is available so no student need ever arrive to the math exam of life without having multiple, exquisitely sharp pencils in hand.


the habit of love

Without exception, she consistently, unabashedly expressed her joy daily when seeing me. She listened to my rants and rages without judging. Remained impartial and didn’t give unsolicited advice.

With her, there was always a freedom to be my odd, obsessive self. Her stellar level of intuition meant that she most often knew I was sick well before I did.

For fifteen years, this fellow introvert and I connected daily. Affectionate greetings. Shared silences. We were each other’s love habit.

My friend was not human, much more of the feline persuasion, yet she has been a hard habit to break. She was a rescue cat who shared my home for this most recent third of my life. Even though it has been two months since she passed, as recent as yesterday, I instinctively spoke aloud to her in a moment of happy expression.  An excitement to share.

Porch 020




The weight of grief has lessened considerably but I now realize how much I learned from loving my furry companion.

She softened my once-sharp edges. Gave me space to risk a deep love. Taught me to listen more than speak. Revealed a surprisingly deep desire and ability for affection and connection. Showed me that isolation is not as nourishing for me as I had once thought and that two hearts have an abundance of energy.  I discovered as much about myself in loving her as I did in losing her.

And I learned that the habit of love, in whatever form, is one well worth developing and only hope that I can follow her example of what a good friend could be.



what if it was already true?

What if what you envision for your life was already true?

What would that look like?  Your life’s work?  Your creative project?  Your relationships?  Your family?  Your home life?  Your health and well-being?

How would already having this life feel different in your body?

What limiting stories could be released?

What is stopping you from acting as if it was true right now?

It is your choice.  Choose to do one thing today, right now, that reflects that all that you truly want is already true.


the gift of waiting

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
(Joseph Campbell)

Waking up this past week in la belle province was a gift I gave myself in light of several significant losses that were weaved loosely throughout the fabric of my autumn. Although not intended as a way to avoid the discomfort of the stories that often accompany my sadness, the simple of act of choosing a new action despite my learned pattern to become inert with grief was a beneficial choice, for me.

Cold night in Québec city

A delightful discovery was that, within the enchanting packaging of this winter-wonderland excursion, were other smaller, plainer gifts that continue to be unwrapped and treasured.

The most significant surprise of the week was most definitely the gift of waiting.

Travel involves waiting. A lot of it. In long lines at ticket booths, train stations, at stop lights and icy crosswalks. Waiting for the sun to finally come out or for breakfast to be served. Waiting for a companion to be ready move on in the rhythm of camaraderie and a shared experience. Waiting for a cab to arrive or for toes and noses to thaw once back inside and away from the chilling wind.

A Church in Vieux Quebec

Control No More

The gift of waiting is specifically noticeable in how it presents as a perceived loss of control. Not a comfortable place for anyone and an area where I have much to learn. But the discomfort quickly morphs into anticipation with the choice of a new outlook. Waiting generously gives us the gift of courage by allowing us to give up the illusion that we have much control over anything. No amount of planning, analyzing or clarity of expectation can replace the inevitable times of doing nothing but waiting to see what might possibly come next.

Connect The Dots

Waiting also provides the space for spontaneous connection with other people. With nowhere else to go, I was suddenly so much more aware of the others who would normally be a blurry mass as I rushed past them in all my routine efficiency. The woman who spoke no English smiling at my creative attempts at French, side by side, trying to determine if we were each in the proper line for our destination. Or the elderly man sitting next to me on one leg of the train ride confessing to me that he didn’t like how fast the train was travelling and he was quite worried about it going off the tracks.  Fellow travellers acknowledging each other as they are, in that moment.  A small, insignificant connection but a connection all the same.

Adventure Loves Company

And finally, at the very core of the waiting gift bag, I discovered the genuine treasure of companionship. As a true fan of solitude, I’ve plumbed the depths of often being alone, occasionally used it as a crutch, learned so much about myself through it and know that it needs to be a regular part of my every day. But nothing could have prepared me for the joy of sharing this adventure with my son who was a last-minute addition to what was planned to be a solo journey. Seeing the unabashed enjoyment that I was already experiencing reflected back to me so clearly in my son’s face was priceless. The daily camaraderie, creative and collaborative problem-solving situations, working at open communication even through disagreements and the memories created was a genuine gift that will keep on giving.  And it has convinced me that even me, an introvert’s introvert, even I am wired to be in close connection with others.


by Marche Champlain


The writing is clearly on the wall. Travel is a good teacher and I, the student, am ready for more!



beyond resolution


To mark this new day, this new year, this new adventure, I will:

1. Be grateful for those I’ve met on my path this past year. I’ll recall, with gratitude, their support, their wisdom or their challenge to my set way of thinking. I’ll wish them all the abundance of the universe.

2. Let go of the tired story that I am not good enough. A silly fable that has only grown to mythic proportions in my retelling of it. It is time for a bold re-write infused with the power of vulnerability.

3. Clarify the difference between my fear and my intuition. Noticing and fully acknowledging the fear but choosing to trust the intuition and follow the inspirational call to sail further away from the comfort of the shoreline.

4. Take care of myself, in earnest. Breathing, eating, drinking, playing, resting, working and relating all in balanced levels of presence, challenge, nourishment and radical acceptance of what is.

5. Take conscious, simple steps forward that are in clear alignment with my values. Resolve only to hope without expectation, love without fear and accept pain as part of a lived experience but not suffering.

“Silence before the storm” 寧 Serenity / SML.20121130.IP3

May the peace and power of leaving your own shorelines be yours this year!